Bishop Takes Pawn: Plundering the Rights of a Prisoner- Priest

By Ryan A. Macdonald
A Ram in the Thicket
May 21, 2012

Bishop John B. McCormack, Aux. Bishop Francis J. Christian and Fr. Edward Arsenault, announce names of accused priests of the Diocese of Manchester.

"I do believe you will agree that we arrived at a point in our handling of these cases where canon and civil law are being eroded to the detriment and I think diminishment, not only of who we are as human beings, but of who we claim to be as Christians." (Catharine Henningsen, Voice of the Faithful Conference, February 5, 2004).

In October, 2000, Mr. Leo Demers - then a senior editor for a PBS-Boston television station that produced the news program, "Frontline," approached the Diocese of Manchester after being contacted by "Frontline" producers with an interest in the case of longly imprisoned priest, Father Gordon MacRae. Mr. Demers first called Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian who flatly refused to discuss any aspect of the MacRae case. Shortly after, Mr. Demers was then summoned to meet with Bishop John McCormack. According to a sworn affidavit of Mr. Demers, Bishop McCormack informed him in this meeting:

"What I am about to tell you must never leave this room. I believe Father MacRae is innocent and his accusers likely lied, but there is nothing I can do to change a jury verdict."

Mr. Demers decided that he could not in conscience honor the secrecy demand of his bishop when two years later he learned that the bishop sent the case of Father MacRae to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome seeking his canonical dismissal from the priesthood based upon no evidence other than the fact of his convictions.

A New Hampshire attorney has corroborated the statement of Leo Demers with a statement of her own. Her sworn affidavit reveals that in December 2000, she sought a meeting with Bishop McCormack after learning of the possible interest of Dorothy Rabinowitz and The Wall Street Journal in looking at the MacRae case. According to her statement, both Bishop John McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian were present at that meeting, and both unequivocally stated their respective belief that Father MacRae is in fact innocent of the claims that sent him to prison. The two bishops informed the attorney of their intent to explore and fund an appeal of Father MacRae's trial and sentence.

In 2001, Father Edward Arsenault, Bishop McCormack's "delegate for ministerial conduct," raised the following points in two confidential memos to the Bishop:

"My suggestion is that we address the inequity in Gordon's lack of base remuneration over the last 8 - 10 years {a calculable number) . . . This would alleviate ... the burden from you for extraordinary measures and would be more consistent with Church law."

"We ought to admit to Gordon that we have no reason to doubt that the Grovers [the accusers] may have embellished their testimony to suit their own purposes and that we have never supported Detective Mclaughlin's tactics."

The "base remuneration" never took place. However, other confidential memos to Bishop McCormack from other Diocesan personnel reveal their doubts about the trial testimony against Father MacRae, including these excerpts from a memo from Diocesan Attorney Bradford Cook:

"Throughout this process it was obvious that all of the Grovers were expansive in their testimony and it was aimed at getting a certain result, and frankly none of the attorneys involved in the criminal or civil cases trusted their testimony to be completely accurate. Whether it was all trumped up or totally manufactured is impossible to know . . . That it was embellished was clear."

"Detective McLaughlin has been the instigator of many cases in the Keene area and seems to be a crusader on sexual abuse cases, engaging in questionable activities which border on entrapment on occasion."

"As to the involvement of Father Scruton or anyone else at St. Bernard's, clearly there were several members of the clergy located at that church who had problems and it is impossible to discount that one or more of them may have been involved with one or more of the Grovers."


In a meeting in early January, 2002, Bishop McCormack promised the imprisoned priest that $40,000 in "non-donated funds" would be set aside to retain appellate counsel for him. Then suddenly the 2002 scandal broke out in Boston, implicated Bishop McCormack, and left Father MacRae outside the rapidly circling diocesan wagons. Bishop McCormack's subsequent memos to the priest continued to promise a defense, but with conditions. The memos called for MacRae's termination of any contact with The Wall Street Journal and Dorothy Rabinowitz before the diocese would agree to assist him further. Bishop McCormack's newer overtures promised help only if Father MacRae would agree to limit any inquiry to the length of his sentence and not the history and merits of the case or the convictions themselves.

Father Edward Arsenault contacted Father MacRae through the prison chaplain in 2002 with an assurance that the Diocese would retain Attorney David Vicinanzo to represent him. Reportedly, Father Arsenault asked the imprisoned priest to forward to his office all defense files retained by the priest. In December, 2002, Father Arsenault answered one of Father MacRae's letters with a statement that he "has not yet had an opportunity to discuss the materials you sent with Attorney Vicinanzo."

Months later, Father MacRae learned that his legal defense files were never given to the lawyer, and were instead taken by the state Attorney General's Office when serving a Grand Jury subpoena for priest's records on the Diocese. From that point on, Father Edward Arsenault and Bishop John McCormack both stopped responding to Father MacRae's letters.

At the same time all of this was going on, Father Edward Arsenault and the Diocese of Manchester were deeply involved with negotiations with plaintiff lawyers for mediated settlements. For a stunning review of what went on behind closed doors in these mediated settlements, please see an eye-opening article by Father George David Byers entitled, "The Judas Crisis...Follow the Thirty Pieces of Silver."

When Bishop McCormack signed an agreement with the Attorney General's Office to publish the files of some 62 priests accused, a part of the agreement was that each priest would have a ten-day period to review and challenge publication of any files pertaining to him. Concerned that privileged legal documents and other materials produced post-trial by Father MacRae were about to be published, the imprisoned priest wrote to Father Edward Arsenault in January, 2003, asking that this ten-day review be afforded to him. He received no reply.

Ten days after the files were published, in March of 2003, Father MacRae received a letter from an attorney for the diocese describing what he must do to obtain his files and review them before the release. The month-long delay in his receipt of that letter has never been validly explained to him.

After the publication of this vast release of files, Father MacRae wrote to both Bishop McCormack and Attorney General Kelly Ayotte protesting the publication of files that were fraudulently obtained by the diocese and published without regard for the priest's confidentiality rights. Bishop McCormack wrote that he tried to prevent the publication of files that were confidential, but was not successful. Attorney General Ayotte's representative wrote to Father MacRae stating that all files obtained by a Grand Jury in New Hampshire are considered confidential under law, but added that Bishop McCormack signed a waiver of confidentiality enabling the priest's files to be published.

In 2004, Bishop McCormack proposed in writing that he would like to meet with Father MacRae at the prison to discuss the norms under which he must send Father MacRae's case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then the bishop cancelled this meeting and sent the case with no input from Father MacRae, no defense, and without Father MacRae knowing any of the specifics of what was sent.

In 2005, after Dorothy Rabinowitz published a two-part article exposing the clearly unjust trial and imprisonment of Father Gordon MacRae, officials of his Diocese, including his bishop, ceased all communication with him until 2008.

At that time, Bishop McCormack sent a letter to Father MacRae expressing his concern that he has "learned you have retained new counsel" in this case. Bishop McCormack wrote that he has retained counsel to represent him - though no one knows why the Bishop would need representation in Father MacRae's appeal. The Bishop's letter also detailed that he has commissioned lawyers to conduct a review of Father MacRae's trial for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Bishop's secret "review" bypassed all the lawyers and investigators diligently working on Father MacRae's appellate defense. Bishop McCormack has refused to divulge to the priest or his legal and canonical advocates the nature of that secret review.

Father MacRae has had no communication from his bishop since that 2008 letter. In a letter to Rome, Bishop McCormack asserted that since his imprisonment, Father MacRae has refused, through unnamed third parties, to have any contact with his Diocese or other priests. It was upon review of the events I have described above that the late Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, Editor of First Things magazine, called the case of Father Gordon MacRae "A Kafkaesque Tale," the title of this editorial in the August/September, 2008, issue of First Things:

A KAFKAESQUE TALE by Rev. Richard John Neuhaus

"Among the many sad consequences of the sex abuse crisis are the injustices visited upon priests falsely accused. A particularly egregious case is that of Father Gordon MacRae of the diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire. He was sentenced to thirty-three years and has been imprisoned more than twelve years with no chance of parole because he insists he is innocent.

I have followed the case for several years. Lawyer friends have closely examined the case and believe he was railroaded. The Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz published, on April 27 and 28, 2005, an account of the travesty of justice by which he was convicted.

Now the friends of Father MacRae have created a website, [the still existing precursor to These Stone Walls], which provides a comprehensive narrative of the case, along with pertinent documentation Bishop John McCormack, a former aide of Boston's Cardinal Law, and the Diocese of Manchester do not come off as friends of justice or, for that matter, of elementary decency. You may want to visit the website and read this Kafkaesque tale. And then you may want to pray for Father MacRae, and for a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice."

(First Things, August/September 2008)


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